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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Erlangen 91052 (7)—Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major (Bronze Medals)

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square Series "Erlangen 91052"
Click here for the "Erlangen 91052" Resource Center—All Posts Available
One year ago on Round and Square (18 February 2013)—China's Lunar Calendar 2013 02-18
Two years ago on Round and Square (18 February 2012)—Kanji Mastery: Radical 137 (舟—Boat)
Click here for other posts in this Round and Square mini-series:
Bronze Medals                    Silver Medals                    Gold Medal

O.k., I'm in love—musical love. 

I haven't felt this way since I met Hank Williams (thirty years after his death).

I spent the evening...the other evening...listening to many different versions of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major (Opus 35), and have gained a new appreciation for a piece that (although I have always admired it) I always considered a bit more hat than cattle. I thought it was a little too "showy." I think that the word "gimmicky" even began to form in my mind at one point. And now, I am ashamed.
[b] Musik RF

Boy, was I wrong. 

Ol' Pyotr can put on quite a dazzling show, to be sure, but there is nuance, and plenty of it. It took a bit of careful listening to begin to see this clearly.

In the spirit of the Olympic Games, I start with the bronze medal renditions. Let me make absolutely clear that these are all so fine that my "medal" designation is really about the distantly "Germanic" theme of these posts (which you will see). There shall be three medals, and six recipients: bronze, silver, and gold. I have since listened to many others, and they are exquisite. It is as though no one attempts it without making damned sure s/he's "ready." I had to pick the medal winners to make the schtick of these posts work. It's not just about talent; I have a plan here.

A big, exhausting, sweaty plan.

Yes, I am obsessive, and my newfound control over my own time has dazzled me to such an extent that I am now able to listen to "classical" music all evening as I read my German and Chinese texts. This is how I always thought my life would be...and it has taken thirty years to make it happen. Better late...oh, never mind.

So I'm listening to Opus 35. I have listened to at least two dozen performers now. All are more than good. It's just like the Olympic Downhill. Mere tenths of "seconds" separate them—if they are separated at all.
[c] Recording RF

Let's start with Itzakh Perlman, who gives us context for the concerto. Perlman is amazing, and I hope that you will forgive me for not putting him in the medal mix. He deserves to be there (just as Bode Miller might well have won the Sochi 2014 downhill if there was a cloud covering that day). Here's what Perlman says: "Tchaikovsky's concerto is in many ways uncomfortable to play." Exactly (this is the "Germanic" theme of these posts—hang with me). There is nothing gemütlich about it for the soloist...or even the careful listener. 

It is difficult, technical (not the same thing), emotional, and uncomfortable.

[d] Muß RF

There was a three-way tie for the bronze.

First, there is Yehudi Menuhin. The recording to which I listened is from vinyl (c. 1949). It is methodical, passionate (these are not necessarily opposed), and Yehudi teases out the "soft" and "nuanced" parts which (to my non-professional eye) are the key to making the "showier" parts of the concerto work. The only problem is that I can't see him. I am grateful for a 1949 recording (oh, let me say that again—eternally grateful). There is much more to say, but this is hard to beat as a start. 

You can't spell "virtuoso" without "Yehudi," at least not in my book. 

(The first half of the first movement; you can find the rest easily on YouTube)

How could I not be in love? It's like 1949 all over again.

Next comes Ivry Gitlis, in a 1962 recording. We get to see him, and that is really where I am going with this series of posts. He struggles. Don't get me wrong; he is composed, and in control of the piece (remember Perlman's words, though) to the extent that he can be. Nonetheless, there is a grimace throughout, as though the strain of holding it together is beyond what a smile can evoke. I love the conductor, Francesco Mander, in this piece, too. He is calm, restrained, and knows his orchestra. For Gitlis, the first movement is powerful, as it must be in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. 
[e] Workin' RF

And the first, tiny dots of perspiration begin to appear; the hair begins to muss (but not muß).

By the second movement, a drip falls from his sideburn. Before we go further, I want to get one thing straight—I am not mocking these performers. Far from it; I like big sweaty guys (you may quote me on this, but you may well fail to see my real point). A more precise way of putting it might be that I love seeing the strain of real, powerful ("real powerful") performance. I despise the popular media, which treats such strain with contempt. Performance is work, people—and no one performs the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto unscathed.

I love this. It is really real. No air-brushing here (or air-drying). They are workin'. Near the end of the finale, Gitlis grabs a handkerchief before blowing away the audience with the final flourish.

Finally, we have David Oistrakh in our three-way tie for the bronze. Always remember, that I have a broader, sweaty, arbeiten, purpose in this little schema. Oistrakh is a violin superpower. I almost hate that I have chosen a "medal template" for this, because he is immer gold.

Oistrakh starts out smoothly enough. That long, nineteen minute first movement—complete with its wild ending that always has a fifth of the audience applauding inappropriately (I consider this Tchaikovsky's little joke on fair-weather listeners) has Oistrakh moving from into the humid zones. Watch him at 19:30. He takes his handkerchief and, at first, just wipes his lips lightly. Then, it's like (I know this feeling in lectures) "oh, hell, let's do this"...wipes his brow, face, and then the surface of the violin. The conductor waits patiently.

Tchaikovsky's violin concerto is hard, sweaty, labor.

Handkerchief at 32:40. King David (this is not new) is burnin' up now.

Beads on the forehead at 34:00.

And then look at his finale. I mean, seriously. No one has ever played it better (this is what everyone says about Oistrakh). Has it taken a toll? Absolutely. Does the audience love it (to the point of multiple curtain calls)? Yup.

The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto is hard work, even for the greatest violinist of the twentieth century. As Itzakh Perlman (none-too-shabby himself) says, it is "uncomfortable." And that is exactly where this miniature series of posts is going. Performance is work. Too often, we fail to see the strain. I want to consider (to "study," as it were) that very strain in these posts.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky will make you show it. 

What does this have to do with Germany? Oh, everything (...und das ist gut).

We're talkin' abmühen here. More Thursday (see below). 

Click here for other posts in this Round and Square mini-series:
Bronze Medals                    Silver Medals                    Gold Medal

[f] Everything RF
Thursday, 20 February 2014
Erlangen 91052 (8)—Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major (Silver Medals)
Sweatin' to the oldies. If you remember that, you are old, like me. 

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